When Fashion Gets it Wrong

Susan Mc Ateer

My mum grew up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I grew up not really understanding what that meant. 

The drive to visit family up north is my earliest memory and association to The Troubles. As the speed limit signs transitioned from kilometres to miles and phone service providers changed, we passed police barracks with intimidating high walls trimmed with reams of barbed wire. Our police stations in the south looked like squat little town houses in comparison, but beyond that I didn’t think too much about it. 

As I get older I’m only beginning to understand my mother’s experience of growing up in real, violent conflict. I could never empathise from my position of safety and comfort, but as mum flippantly recalls routine bag searches, coming home to her apartment raided and trashed for no other reason than she was Catholic, and the tangible fear of getting into her car, I get a sharp jolt when I realise that she was my age, younger even, when she experienced all of this.

When I see a balaclava I immediately associate it with The Troubles. While I didn’t experience it first hand, aural accounts, images, and film and TV depictions of the time have built up certain visual associations. The intimidating anonymity that the balaclava provides doesn’t feel like something that would or should enter our daily lives, but the fashion gods are capable of normalising anything, or at least trying to. 

For Autumn/Winter 2018 Gucci, Calvin Klein, Matty Bovan and Marni are all very concerned for your cold little face. So concerned that they are all flirting with balaclavas. It’s nice to see fashion embracing real issues that real people face - i.e it gets really cold in winter. Because to be honest, we can’t all wear sheer dresses with bare legs and ankle boots with a coat that doesn’t fasten; in fact I don’t know any climate that allows for these dream aesthetic combinations. While I appreciate designers thinking about the real world to a certain extent, and I’m most certainly an advocate for warmth, the balaclava trend is a problematic one. 

Gucci | Fall Winter 2018/2019 by Alessandro Michele 

I’m coming from a very privileged position of not having felt the effect of a painful history being appropriated in the mainstream. While there is a more comprehensive history of the balaclava that goes beyond The Troubles, it’s my frame of reference, and quite frankly, it stings a little. 

The balaclava has its origins in the Crimean war (1853 to 1856) when British women knitted face and head coverings for soldiers fighting in bitterly cold conditions in Balaclava, Ukraine. A nice sentiment, but inherently wedded to violence.

One of the most recent mainstream iterations of the balaclava is via Russian art collective Pussy Riot. The all-female collective have re-appropriated the balaclava in their performative protests against Vladimir Putin and the anti-feminist policies he pedals. In the 1980s Putin issued balaclavas as part of the official uniform for OMAN, a special task force in Russia, claiming they protected the anonymity of the soldiers. Pussy Riot subvert who deserves anonymity by wearing balaclavas in traditionally feminine colours during their performances and protests. 

Pussy Riot still pay the price for their outspoken political criticism. While two members of the collective were apprehended in Crimea (oddly ironic in this case) in February, that same week Gucci sent bejeweled, patterned balaclavas down the Milan runway. 

While Gucci presented balaclavas that obscured the whole face except slits for the eyes and mouth, Calvin Klein took a different approach. Covering the models’ head, but keeping the whole face open, Raf Simons, creative director of Calvin Klein, created a type of balaclava that felt part of the uncomfortable American narrative he presented. The audience and models waded through mounds of popcorn in the American Stock Exchange, New York, as the collection referenced the unease and turbulence of contemporary America. The streams of popcorn, usually associated with movies and recreation, were rendered inedible as they became dirtier and dirtier, illustrating the overconsumption and overindulgence of the American dream. The balaclavas simulated apocalyptic armour; but we could see the models’ beautiful faces which made all the difference. 

Calvin Klein | Fall Winter 2018/2019 by Raf Simons 

Marni, Matty Bovan, and to an extent Dior, all gave us a kind of Balaclava Lite version which felt like a nod to skiwear. You keep your head warm, but keep that chin out and don’t over do it. The problem with Gucci is that the face is so obscured, and the detail and embellishment is so over the top that it feels a bit mocking in nature. While I’m all for Gucci pushing their le freak c’est chic agenda (they sent a model down the runway holding a baby dragon for Christ’s sake), le freak doesn’t have to be ignorant. 

Fashion is meant to disrupt, question and reinvent, but sometimes it misses the mark and comes off as insensitive and out of touch. Although some of the most influential names in fashion have predicted we’ll all be wearing balaclavas on the winter streets later this year, I don’t think we should worry. The exaggerated ideas designers present us with usually become diluted as we buy into a glimmer of an idea rather than the whole shebang, and I doubt there will be many people unphased with hat hair 2.0. In a time when we need to promote more peacefully motivated ideas I hope we don’t regress culturally and make something like the balaclava and all its painful symbolism mainstream.